Saturday, December 22, 2007

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Joyeux Noel is a foreign film (filmed in at least three languages - English, French and German) based on the true story of the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. This is not a children's movie at all, but I thought I'd share it here as it has some incredibly beautiful scenes which could be shared with your family at Christmas.

World War I was a brutal war and the movie rightly gives some of this context which gives more meaning to the truce. We are introduced to a Scottish priest and two brothers who all serve on the front lines, to a French lieutenant who hasn't heard from his pregnant wife - behind enemy lines - for months, to a German officer and to a German soldier and his Danish wife (who are both opera singers) and other interesting, minor characters on each side who come together, partly through the gifts of song and of faith, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and celebrate and bury their dead together.

The film is beautifully made and very moving, but there are many elements that are inappropriate for children - particularly the violence of battle scenes, a brief bedroom scene and a rather disturbing interaction between an emotionally broken young man and his dead brother.

One of the most beautiful and understated scenes I've ever seen in a movie is contained in the opening scene. After a brief introduction giving a sense of the indoctrination of hatred stirred up in the days leading up to the war (particularly in the schools), we find the news of war traveling all the way to rural areas of Scotland. The scene moves to a Church where a priest is lighting candles and and a young man is working on painting a statue. His older brother storms in to ring the Church bells, ecstatic that "something's finally going to happen around here" because they're going to leave for war. The brothers leave and the wind from the door snuffs out the candles. We're left with only an expression on the priest's face that says everything. (To me, he seems to say: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.")

Lots of great material for discussion here (particularly for teens) including the political reality of the priest's military superior (presumably an Anglican bishop) who, quite naturally, tows the line of his superiors.

From what I've read about the real-life Christmas truce, the filmmakers went to great lengths to portray it accurately (if at times representatively) and I was impressed with how much acknowledgement this non-believing director (from what I've listened to of the commentary so far) is willing to give to the Faith in general and to the priest in particular, who clearly sees all of the men from both sides of the trenches as belonging to his flock.

Although this is a war movie with a great Christmas theme and certainly one with political elements, it points higher to practical and spiritual realities of hope, love, forgiveness and brotherhood.

So, I suggest that you watch this first and then decide what portions of it you might like to share with your children. By the way, when this movie first came out, it was given an "R" rating, but, after huge objections from major critics, was updated to a "PG-13" rating. I can see where it sort of straddles that line.

UPDATE: Silly me. I forgot that it also includes the Latin language (but I don't want to say more as I don't want to spoil some of the very beautiful parts before you see it).

You can view some music and clips online here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hobbit

Looks like Peter Jackson is going to do it!

Check out The Hobbit: The Official Movie Blog for all the details.

Great Catholic Titles Available at Netflix

Netflix is, somewhat inadvertently, a part of the reason we started this blog. A lot of Catholic families have discovered that, in spite of the problematic stuff you'll find there (I wouldn't let your kids on the site!), there are many, many fine choices available for families and it can be a more reasonable and more flexible (not to mention more parent-driven) option for movie viewing than cable television. Here are a few films that you may be surprised to find there:

Steve Ray's Footprints of God Apologetics Series
G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense Television Series (from EWTN - with Dale Ahlquist)
Pope John Paul II (Cary Elwes, Jon Voight)
Witness to Hope: The Life of Pope John Paul II
The Song of Bernadette
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima
Father Brown Television Series

I'm sure there are many others. What goodies have you found on Netflix?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast

This is a wonderful film for this time of year...though more suited to Easter. :) I first saw this film in a Christ figures in film class and thought you might prefer my notes to a more general review. My notes aren't anything more than interpretation of what was intended. That said, Gabriel Axel certainly intended to make a religious film, and Babette is definitely a Christ figure. In fact, there's a boatload of imagery I missed. :)


1. We are told at the outset of the film that this particular sect of Protestantism follows Martin Luther. I found that statement a little odd given that it was followed by the assertion that the congregation were to spend all their time on good works. We watch as the sisters serve meals to others, in simple pots, with possibly even simpler contents. Everything about these people is austere. We cannot fail to understand that the goods and pleasures of this life are to be studiously avoided as the focus is on the soul and life eternal. The father keeps his daughters on a very tight leash. Men are discouraged, ever so gently, from seeking their hands in marriage, and both daughters reject suitors that make them “afraid of their joy”. It is as if joy were reflective of excess. Several times we hear little phrases that perpetuate the teaching of the pastor, which at times appears to carry more weight than the teachings of Christ. It is not as though the teachings differ from Christ’s teaching; what is surprising is that we are told to remember what the pastor taught us, rather than what Christ taught us. For example, “Little children, love one another,” and “The only thing we can take into this next life is what we give.” Again, I was confused by the emphasis on works. We do hear that Christ “loved us and cleansed us with His blood,” and services focus on singing and preaching which would be more in keeping with the teachings and practices of Martin Luther. However, you get the sense that through the denial of physical pleasures, as well as the focus on performing good works, the members hope to earn their salvation. This is why they are so disturbed by Babette’s feast; they fear intemperance, and so vow that it will be “as if we had no sense of taste.”

2. A soldier comes to Jutland and falls in love with Martina. When he asks for her hand in marriage the father replies, “My daughters are my right and left hand in serving the Lord. How can you take either my right or left hand from me?” Martina is dutiful, and meekly forgoes this earthly happiness to serve the Lord at her father’s side.
A visiting opera singer is smitten by Philippa. He is struck by her beauty, and delighted by her voice. Sensing that courting this girl might be difficult, he approaches the father and offers to train Philippa’s voice that “she might sing like an angel. That’s important when one sings to God.” Lesson follows upon lesson, and the two are swept up by their feelings when singing together. Philippa is confused by her feelings and obviously uncomfortable, singing “I’m afraid of our joy.” Papin seals his own fate when he assures her that she can be a great diva in Paris. “Emperors and seamstresses will come to hear you sing!” He adds that her voice will bring comfort to the poor, but it is too late; she has seen ambition and runs from it. Her one ambition will be to serve the Lord by her father’s side. She will not be taken in by vanities.
There do seem to be regrets, but I got the sense that these were seen in the light of a good foregone for a much greater good. Again, earthly pleasures distract from the aim, a heavenly Jerusalem. It is no great loss in light of the eternal reward.
3. When we meet Babette, we are told that she was “poor among the poor.” She asks to be allowed to serve the sisters. These are our first clues that Babette is a Christ figure. Shortly after we meet Babette, we watch as she attentively listens to the sisters instructing her in cooking. They prepare a meal which, while nourishing, is neither pleasant to behold nor to eat. This sequence is reminiscent of Christ’s hidden life. Just as Christ, all knowing, allowed himself to be taught, so too, Babette, a gourmet chef, humbly allows herself to be instructed in the “art” of cooking. Christ, the Master, meekly obeyed His parents; Babette, a master cook, meekly obeys the instructions she is given. She adopts the style and customs of the people around her. We begin to see her salvific effect on God’s people in the spirit of joy that buds after her arrival. As she interacts with merchants, there is a kind of friendly haggling. She leaves with her prize goods, and the merchant watches her go, a smile playing about his lips. The next customer is immediately told that she won’t be able to work the same wonders; she is not Babette. The fact that she is a gourmet chef rather than a widow with a knack for cooking helps establish her as a Christ figure. She is a ‘Master’. She has a God-given gift, which she does not “hide under a bushel basket”. And yet, she does not use this gift until the people of God are ready to receive it.
4. When Babette asks to be allowed to prepare a meal for the anniversary of the Founder’s death, she also asks to be allowed some time off in order to prepare. She requires three days. She prepares for the feast in a snow-white apron with a crucifix prominently displayed. This is our signal that Babette’s hidden life is past; she is the Savior preparing for His salvific act. Just as Christ’s sacrifice was not complete until after the Resurrection, a period of three days, so Babette’s sacrificial meal requires three days preparation before its salvific effects can be felt.
That the ‘people of God’ require salvation is clear. Their numbers have dwindled, the members are old, and the spirit of the group is ugly. Grudges formed long ago have festered and deepened with time, and members lash out at each other even as they are supposed to be at prayer. The daughters attempt to lead them, but we see it is futile. Right after the prayer has been spoken, the members are at it again. The community is divided by sin, and the memory of their ‘father’ is distant and dim; they need a savior.
Babette wins the lottery, and it is assumed that she will now return to Paris. She walks along the beach, considering what she will do. We see a white bird fly across the heavens, and at first I thought it might actually be a dove. It was a seagull, but I think it was meant to signify a dove. (A dove on the Jutland coast would have been inappropriate, and a little obvious.) In any case, Babette is inspired. She will serve the community a real meal, a French feast.
The first hint we have that this meal is special is when we hear that the General joining them for the feast will make their number 12, an obvious reference to the Last Supper. That the General, an outsider to the community, is welcome is a nice touch, given that salvation is not for the Chosen People only. Even the coachman and serving boy partake, although not at the table, which is interesting for several reasons. These three represent outsiders; they are not the Chosen People. They are, however, the only ones who appear to appreciate the sacrifice! By contrast, the Chosen People turn away from the gift; they will eat, but they will not enjoy. It will be as if they did not have a sense of taste. Also, Babette does not eat. She does taste various dishes to be certain they are properly seasoned, but she does not eat the meal. She is the savior, and hence, does not require salvation. Lastly, the coachman and serving boy are content with the “scraps that fall from the master’s table”, even though they are in this case, hardly scraps.
That the meal has salvific effects is not immediately apparent. The members are true to their word; they manfully resist the sensual pleasures. One of them asserts that “As at the wedding feast at Cana, the food is of no importance.” Again, I had to chuckle. The film, at times, seemed to poke fun at Fundamentalism. These people are so eager to get it right, meticulous in their adherence to the principles set out by their founder. Somewhere along the line, these principles seem to have gotten muddled. Who, having read the account of the wedding at Cana, could cite that example to support the notion that is served is of no importance? In the end, no one can remain unaffected by the loving sacrifice of Babette. The members slowly begin to appreciate the gift of food, and by the end of the meal are choosing to enjoy wine rather than water. Fingers are licked, that every last morsel might be enjoyed. The food itself transforms these people. Through Babette’s sacrificial meal, God’s grace brings peace, joy, and salvation. The members gather about the fountain, singing and dancing, rejoicing in their new-found Faith, and praising God as they declare “Hallelujah!” That they dance about a fountain is no accident; they have been ‘born again’, and the cleansing waters signify their rebirth. The two sisters come to realize the full extent of Babette’s sacrifice only after the meal has been served. She has sacrificed everything, and the sisters feel the joy of her love. They thank her for the meal and praise it; they have been won over and rejoice in their conversion.
5. This film tells the story of God’s Chosen People. We meet them as they live under the Old Law. In Babette, we experience the Savior. She brings joy and peace, dispels fear and awakens a true spirit of charity. She establishes a New Covenant with the People of God through her great, sacrificial act. It is significant that the reason for feasting is the anniversary of the founder’s death. This grounds us in the Old Law, while at the same time transcending it, giving the members new hope, joy, and peace.
6. The film was beautiful. The director made such effective use of lighting and colors that the warmth and depth of Babette’s love was itself almost palatable. By contrast, the scenes with the sisters and pastor made one want to sit up a little straighter to avoid the disapproving glances that might otherwise be cast your way. Contrary to the intention of the film, I was left feeling sad. The tremendous sacrifice of Babette went so long unappreciated. It was, in fact, actively resisted. If that isn’t more telling of the human condition, I don’t know what is. Christ has given us every means, every aid. How many of us truly take part in the Eucharist? Christ offers Himself to us every day; how often do we embrace Him? We do so very little to dispose ourselves to receive His grace. Christ’s sacrifice, the love of the cross, is daily rejected.
God bless, Maria

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Archbishop Charles Chaput on The Golden Compass

When the first Harry Potter movie arrived in theaters several years ago, many Catholic families had divided views about the film. Some enjoyed it as an innocent and intriguing fantasy. Others avoided it because of its emphasis on magic. But the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's book, "The Golden Compass," which opened in Denver on Dec. 7, will likely produce far more agreement. No matter how one looks at it, "The Golden Compass" is a bad film. There's just no nicer way to say it.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Cinderella Man

This is a movie I had no intention of seeing. Two reasons were because the time period is the Depression and it was a movie about boxing! It wasn't until one of my sisters highly recommended the movie that we finally decided to watch it.

It was such a beautiful story of family...a Catholic family.

This is a story inspired by the true life of boxer James J. Braddock. He was an up and coming boxer during the depression, making a name for himself when he fell on hard times. However, his love of his wife and children always came first. He would do what was necessary to take care of them. Some scenes were hard to watch, especially the way he had to humble himself when he needed to get money.

"That common-man hero was James J. Braddock-a.k.a. the "Cinderella Man"-who was to become one of the most surprising and inspirational sports legends in history. By the early 1930s, the impoverished ex-prizefighter was seemingly as broken-down, beaten-up and out-of-luck as much of the rest of the American populace. Like so many others, Braddock had hit rock bottom. His career appeared to be finished, he was unable to pay the bills, the only thing that really mattered to him-his family-was in danger, and he was even forced to go on Public Relief. But deep inside, Jim Braddock never relinquished his determination. Driven by love, honor and an incredible dose of grit, he willed an impossible dream to come true".
From the James J. Braddock Official Website.

This is one of those movies that makes you feel good after you watched it. It is a family-oriented film but because of the violent nature of boxing, I would not recommend it for children under 14 or even 16.

Personally, I liked that the "Cinderella Man" was a Jersey boy. In fact, my sister the one who recommended the movie, went to see it with her spiritual advisor, Fr. Raymond Beach. Fr. Raymond really looked forward to seeing the movie because in real life, he was the altar boy who served at the wedding of Jim Braddock. Throughout the movie, Fr. Raymond was hoping they would show a little altar boy at the wedding. But unfortunately, that was not a scene in the movie. He really liked it nevertheless.

Click HERE for trailer.

Emmet Otter's Jug-band Christmas

This is one of those great overlooked classics, it was never popular, but should not be missed. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is based on the book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, authors of the Frances books. The story is classic, very similar in many ways to O Henry's classic Gift of the Magi. The movie rendition is from 1977, and features creations from the imagination of Jim Henson.

The simplicity of the story is the greatest beauty of it, Ma Otter is struggling to give her son Emmet what he wants for Christmas. She makes many sacrifices to raise him well, and give him what he needs. Meanwhile, Emmet is a good son, who does what he can to help his mother, but is sometimes misguided in his efforts. The movies does a great job teaching a few moral lessons without making it obvious or talking down to the intended audience.

The movie is a bit dated, it was made in 1977, and the music reflects that, but that can be easily overlooked due to the quality of the story. With our modren computer animation, the 70's muppets are a bit odd, their strings and wires are very visible, but again, the overall quality prevails.

I loved this book and movie as a kid, but as a mother, I now understand why my mom cried when she read it to us and why she gave the movie to me as a gift. Kids will love the movie, otters are just cute, the antagonists are goofy and loud and the songs are fun. Moms will appreciate the bigger story, and hopefully can use the lessons to discuss the real meaning of Christmas.

I am David

I admit it. I like movies about the indomitable spirit of those unjustly imprisoned, and I like them even more if they are in any way connected to WWII. I hear portions of my grandfather's last letter to his family, written just hours before his execution. I hear my uncle's stories of life in a Nazi labor camp and see again the twinkle in his eye as he recounts the little ways one maintains freedom, dignity and charity despite everything which would incline one towards hate and despair. It's an imitation of the passion, death, aaand resurrection, as well as further proof that imitation of Christ is a beautiful thing despite appearances to the contrary. Every cross has some share in The Cross, and God never forsakes us. This is what gives us hope despite real cause to lose it, and it's what makes "I am David" more than a good story beautifully crafted. It's the story of man's fallen, broken and restless heart remade, which is why it's perfect for Christmastime viewing...though it would be even more suited to Lent and Easter!

The story takes place in the 1950's in communist eastern Europe. David is a 12 year old boy who has been separated from his parents and imprisoned for almost as long as he can remember. The movie chronicles his escape and the wanderings which eventually lead him home. What is not overtly depicted but nevertheless unmistakable is God's providential care in even the details of our lives and the varied surprising means He uses to bring greater good out of evil. David reminds us to never give up, to recognize God working in our lives, and to grow in love and trust along the way.

Some of the prison scenes are intense and depict a level of evil too disturbing for younger children. Watch this one first and then decide who can join you.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Prince Caspian Trailer

H/T to American Papist

It looks like the actors from the first movie are back in this sequel.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Amazing Grace

We recently watched two films, "Amazing Grace" and "I am David", both of which I enthusiastically recommend.

Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce's (portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd) relentless efforts to abolish the slave trade in England. The film is interesting and inspiring on several levels: one comes away with a better understanding of the historical period and its influences, the English political system and politics in general, the way in which God works in our lives, through our strengths and despite our weaknesses, and the beauty and triumph of lived Christian principles.

Because the film deals with the issue of slavery, some material may be too intense and troubling for young children. There are no graphic images, but former slaves/slavers do describe, in detail, the miserable conditions of life aboard ship.

The relationship between Wilberforce and Barbara Spooner is delightfully the sense of Cicero's "A friend is other self." One does not commonly find romance and friendship so beautifully blended in film. (Unhappily, the styles of the period allow us to see a little more of Barbara than we would like. Happily, Barbara has loads of lovely hair which cascades freely, making some amends for the shortage of fabric.)

The next time I sing, "Amazing Grace" it'll have a level of meaning and a kind of beauty it did not before....though it'll sound just as bad as it ever did. Watching good films does not improve musical ability.

I'll post on, "I am David" next.